In 1944, Harry S. Truman was introduced to the nation as the new vice-president. Radio being the dominant medium of that time, his voice received disproportionate attention, and the reviews were miserable — it was tinny, irritating, un-presidential. Truman was so dismayed by the reviews of his performance, he hired a specialist to coach up his speaking voice, to little apparent effect.
If Truman had been the first woman president (a hypothetical that obviously requires setting aside the social dynamics that would have made such a thing impossible in 1948), we’d have called that criticism “gendered.” And harping on the intonation of female voices is a real phenomenon. On the other hand, some politicians are just not especially gifted speakers, and among that group, some are female.
Some supporters of Hillary Clinton have dismissed criticism of her speech-giving talents as sexist, a theme I’ve seen from Clinton supporters I respect a great deal. “Name a female leader who has soared rhetorically,” asks Jay Newton-Small, to take one. Well, there’s Michelle Obama, whose speech received universal acclaim two nights earlier. Don’t want to count her as a leader? Okay, Elizabeth Warren tends to get positive reviews. Sarah Palin, whatever her substantive flaws, delivered some speeches in 2008 even Democrats conceded to be electrifying. It may be harder for female leaders to be considered brilliant speakers, but clearly it is possible. It is also possible for people not to dig Hillary Clinton’s speeches for non-gendered reasons.
This is a manifestation of a real problem in contemporary identity politics. Naked racism and sexism are frowned upon in polite society, yet they remain alive, so their expression tends to be hidden, often in ways not consciously known to the person expressing them. A person with a deep-rooted fear of strong female leaders might express his beliefs in the form of nitpicking her vocal stylings. It’s a conceptually similar problem to what happens when guerillas hide among a civilian population. The enemy can tend to assume that all civilians are guerillas unless proven otherwise.
We should all be aware of the chance we have absorbed racist and sexist beliefs, and interrogate our own assumptions with that possibility in mind. At the same time, there still has to be a process of reason-based inquiry with open-ended conclusions. Insisting that anything a racist or sexist might do is necessarily racist or sexist precludes that. (It’s the classic logical fallacy that if A leads to B, B is therefore evidence of A.) Some people find Clinton’s speaking style captivating. A great many do not. You can’t just shame them out of their conclusion. A program of social change that requires the willful suspension of disbelief is doomed to fail.
The insistence on locating sexism in criticism of Clinton’s performance does a disservice to her cause in another way. Inspiration is hard to sustain even at its best, let alone when it is willed into existence by a shaming campaign. Clinton’s strength as president, should she be elected, will not lie in moving tens of millions of Americans with her oratory, but in her mastery of substance. Even if her presidency is successful, it won’t consist of the series of made-for-television inspirational setpieces you see at a convention, but a long, usually un-telegenic grind. This is even true of presidents who deliver gorgeous speeches. It’s a necessary element of sustaining a majority. Helping Clinton succeed will require preparing her supporters for a politics without music, rather than forcing them to attest to the beauty of a sound they cannot truly hear.